Ethical Challenges of Military Social Workers Serving in a Combat Zone

Article excerpt

Military social workers constitute a remarkable subgroup of the social work profession, one that routinely experiences unique professional and ethical challenges. Among the most obvious of these is practicing social work in a combat environment. Faced with austere and often dangerous conditions, military social workers perform the balancing act of trying to meet the needs of their military member clients while continuing to meet the greater needs of the combat mission they are assigned to support. Issues concerning privacy, boundaries, and limited resources are not uncommon in the severe conditions in which deployed military social workers practice. In addition, in combat areas, military social workers operate in an environment governed by rules that are significantly more rigid than those encountered in the civilian sector. From the unique paradigms in which military social workers practice their craft, questions about how they address the ethical challenges inherent with their wartime mission arise. Using a concept mapping design, the current qualitative phenomenological study addressed some of the ethical challenges faced by 24 military social workers who were deployed during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF [combat operations in Afghanistan]).


Professional social workers have been working with the U.S. military since World War I and as uniformed members of the military since World War II (Daley, 1999). The profession as we know it today was first recognized in November 1943, when the Army designated psychiatric social work as a separate job category (called a "specialty code") and appointed the first social work consultant to the Surgeon General of the Army (Garber & McNelis, 1995). In the half century that followed, military social work practice evolved into a well-defined career choice for master's (that is, MSW and MSSW) trained social workers (Garber & McNelis, 1995). Currently, over 300 social workers serve in U.S. active duty and reserve forces (Daley, 1999, 2003). In addition to their noncombat jobs working in the areas of domestic violence, substance abuse, medical social work, family support, and both inpatient and outpatient mental health, all active duty social workers prepare to work in wartime situations. It is important to note that because military social workers are part of the medical branch of military service, they are technically considered noncombatants, meaning they do not engage in the actual fighting. However, military social workers regularly deploy to combat areas, where they provide mental health prevention and treatment services to the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who are fighting a war and often need them for support. While practicing in these combat areas, military social workers, unsurprisingly, regularly face ethical challenges.

Military Ethics and Social Work Ethics

On the surface, military ethics and social work ethics are remarkably similar. Both depend on sets of ethical values that focus on personal conduct and service. Although each military branch encompasses its own set of core values, the Armed Forces of the United States has encapsulated the basic ethical values for all service members as honesty, integrity, loyalty, accountability, fairness, caring, respect, promise keeping, responsible citizenship, and pursuit of excellence (Powers, 2006). Likewise, the NASW (1996) Code of Ethics outlines social work's core values as service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence. On the level of abstraction generated by such one-concept values, similarities prevail. However, in the larger context of the two professions, stark contrasts exist. Among the most salient of these is the social work value of social justice, a concept relatively contrary to the military practice of sacrificing individual freedom for the greater good of society. …


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